Saturday, April 17, 2010

Celebration of the signs and marks humans have made thoughout history and prehistory

Celebration of the Signs and Marks Humans Have Always Made
This is a detail of the hammered copper sculpture, titled Hieroglyph, by artist O. V. Shaffer that has stood in front of the downtown Madison Public Library since 1964, the year the library opened and replaced the old Carnegie library.

No work of public art will ever please everybody, and Hieroglyph has had its share of detractors over the years, but I'm fond of it -- and think it's especially appropriate for the site.

Humans are sign-making animals. It's impossible to imagine the modern world without reading and the rich cultural substructure with which we pass on memories and experience through books and other writing and imagery, whether electronic or not. Reading in that sense is only a few thousand years old -- and widespread for only a few hundred. But human culture evolved through the language of shared signs -- notched on sticks, carved on stones or painted on cave walls by flickering torchlight -- for ten of thousands of years before books ever existed.

That's what I think Hieroglyph celebrates. The marks and signs and figures embedded in the abstract sculpture evoke the prehistory of writing, without which modern culture -- and libraries themselves-- could not exist.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Eating Our Way through the Wisconsin Film Festival, Day Three: Brocach Irish Pub

Eating Our Way through the WFF, Day Three: Brocach Irish Pub
We were still under the spell of our 5:15 show and wandered off in search of a place where the could savor our memories over some cold beers and music, and then end a long week with some comfort food. Brocach Irish Pub with its house band and Friday Fish Fry seemed to fit the bill. (Besides, Brocach is another restaurant that provides a second entree free when you present the WPR membership card.)

T had a Stella Artois, in honor of one of the festival sponsors, and I had a Capital Brewery Maibock, in honor of spring (in a Smithwick's glass). The beer batter-fried haddock portions were ample (three fillets, more if you ask), tasty and flaky, and came with a nice homemade tartar sauce. Sides included fries, a curry coleslaw, and a couple pieces of marble rye. We were eating in Wisconsin, but our memory of the film drew us back to São Paulo.

Chega de Saudade
The title of this film by Laís Bodanzky, daughter of a famous Brazilian director, is translated in the program as "The Ballroom" -- but that's a description of a setting, not the evocation of a mood, which is what the film is all about. Chega de Saudade is also the title of what's considered the first Bossa nova song, a hit in the late fifties, often translated into English as "No More Blues." In the movie it's also the name of the somewhat seedy ballroom where mostly elderly patrons gather to dance and flirt and remember. The Portuguese word "saudade" carries overtones of nostalgia, yearning for something past or unobtainable, or homesickness. Chega means no more, or enough. All are appropriate for this bittersweet character study of the ensemble of people who are chasing their dreams and regrets in the ballroom. It's bittersweet but joyous at the same time, filled with a love of life.

I haven't seen such a vibrant ensemble of older performers since I saw The Buena Vista Social Club. At the center of this cast of veteran Brazilian actors is a character named Alice, an old woman in love with the elderly and indisposed king of the ballroom who treats her badly. It's an incandescent performance, and I wondered who the actress was. Turns out she was played by the famous Brazilian star of stage, screen and TV, Tônia Carrero -- who studied in Paris under Jean-Louis Barrault after World War II and made her first movie in 1948, and has been working ever since. She was 85 when she played this role. It's one of those performances that will haunt your dreams.

A blue dome and a typo on a rainy night

A Blue Dome and a Typo on a Rainy Night
Between movies at the Wisconsin Film Festival -- and between showers -- Thursday night on MLK Jr. Blvd. I wondered why the Capitol dome was blue, so I checked the Wisconsin Department of Administration website. Here's what it said, unless they've corrected it by the time you see this:
The Capitol will be lit blue in the honor of Child Prevention Month
The DOA may want to think about adding the missing word to give Child Abuse Prevention Month its proper due -- and to avoid the appearance of advocating state-sponsored birth control.

Eating Our Way through the Wisconsin Film Festival, Day Two: Osteria Papavero

Our evening started with a 5:00 movie at MMoCA, where we were greeted by Meg Hamel, director of the Wisconsin Film Festival (see very brief clip). She explained that although this was our second night, it really was opening day for the film festival (the Wednesday films were considered "bonus" showings.) The night ended with a 10:15 movie that concluded after midnight.

In between, we had time for a leisurely walk across the Capitol Square under lowering skies. We were headed for Osteria Papavero on East Wilson St., where our Wisconsin Public Radio membership card meant our second entree would be free. As we sat in our window seat it began to rain lightly, and we enjoyed watching people walk by with their umbrellas. We were warm and dry and sipping some of the best Negroni cocktails in town (and the staff doesn't have to ask their guests how to make them).

T, the Letter from Here resident food correspondent, had this to say about our dinner
A delightful springtime meal. Two of the standouts in the seafood antipasto were home-cured lox on rye toast and a cannelloni bean salad with fresh white anchovies. The house-made tagliatelli entree delivered a rich, herby mushroom wallop. The roasted halibut came with broccolini, pea tips and fresh fava beans. It was a lovely meal and ended with homemade limoncello and an intensely chocolate hazelnut mousse topped with kumquats in a sweet syrup.
After that it was back to some serious (or not so serious) pursuit of cinematic art. This seemed to be our night for satire.

The Happiest Girl in the World
A dysfunctional family grapples with an age-old question in this satirical Romanian comedy -- if you won an expensive car in a contest, would you keep the car or sell it? Delia is a high school student who wins the car, sees it as her passport to freedom and wants to keep it. Her none-too prosperous parents see the car as a means to achieve a modicum of financial security and pressure Delia to sell it. Most of the film takes place during the shooting of a chintzy TV commercial featuring the happy winner drinking the sponsor's soda while seated in the car. Between endless retakes she fights with her family and then has to act happy and spontaneous on camera. Comedy ensues, perhaps a bit too ponderously and predictably, but it does ensue. And you're left with the question -- is it like this when they shoot the Publisher's Clearing House commercials. Do those winners also bicker and cry between takes?

The Host
The Film Festival is showing several movies by the acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho, and this monster movie -- unlike any you're likely to have ever seen -- was our choice for a late night treat. It's got the usual monster movie stuff, staged in off-kilter and unexpected ways, but also a lot more. Among other things, it delivers something I've longed to see again since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona -- an archer in a situation where failure is not an option and he (or she, in the movie) has only one shot with a flaming arrow and absolutely must hit the target.

The Host is a dark fairy tale, a story about a wonderfully dysfunctional family whose members are called on to become heroes in the face of danger to one of their own, and who all eventually rise to the occasion in their different ways. It's a fable about the stupidity of power and authority. It's a commentary on official overreaction to the SARS epidemic a few years ago (as if the monster weren't perfectly capable of wreaking havoc on its own, the authorities mistakenly insist it's carrying a dangerous virus -- thus the title). But it's also a family saga with unexpected depth and feeling. And it contains unforgettable imagery -- such as an extensive visual survey of the stark urban beauty of Seoul's bridges and sewers, or the beautiful closing image of the family's food stand glowing in the dark on a snowy night. Oh, and have I mentioned that it's often very funny?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wisconsin Film Festival first night noir

Wisconsin Film Festival First Night Noir
When spring arrives, photographers point their cameras at it. T and I were walking on the State Street Mall between shows at the Wisconsin Film Festival when we both pulled out our cameras at the sight of this noirish shadow silhouette of a budding tree. (I braced my camera against a trashcan for the 1/2-second exposure.)

Eating Our Way Through the Wisconsin Film Festival, Day One: Brasserie V

Eating Our Way Through the Wisconsin Film Festival: Brasserie V
What an auspicious start to the Wisconsin Film Festival -- balmy spring weather all day, a great light dinner at Brasserie V on Monroe Street, and then a little after 10:00 a bright fireball streaking across the night sky and briefly turning light to day, which we unfortunately missed because we were in our second movie.

Less auspicious was the fact that right after completing this self-timer, 1/2-second exposure, the Coolpix fell into the water glass that I was using as a makeshift tripod. Only an outside corner of it got wet and I fished it right out. It freaked me out, although apparently no harm was done to the camera. But I digress.

To keep our wits clear for two movies in a row we had a couple of light Belgian beers and shared a soup, salad and entree. We enjoyed the Bibb & French Bean salad and the Moules et Frites, good as always. The real surprise was the cold carrot and ginger soup, which was simply dynamite.

From there we headed to the Chazen Museum of Art, where our films screened at 7:30 and 9:30 (both repeat Friday afternoon at the Wisconsin Union Theater, if you're interested), parking in the lake Street ramp after finding all the free parking spaces in our favorite block of Brooks Street filled. The films, in order:

The Exploding Girl
Features a sensitive, memorable performance by Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan, as Ivy, a young college student returning home to New York City for semester break, where she tries to sort out her feelings about the two young men in her life, one of whom dumps her by cell phone. It's an immensely appealing performance, in a modest film that's beautifully crafted, filled with quiet grace notes and wry observations. T thought a key scene in the movie, where Ivy's friend Al takes her to a rooftop pigeon coop, seems an homage to the scene in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront when Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint visit the pigeons on the roof.

The Thorn in the Heart
A family memoir by Michel Gondry about his formidable aunt Suzette Gondry, who taught school in rural France, and her relationship with her troubled son, Jean-Yves, the "thorn" of the title. Suzette seems to have had a major impact on the children she taught and was considered an "avant garde" teacher. She was less successful with her son, and seemed to prefer her nephew Michel, with whom she could relate more easily.

Although much of the film looks like a home movie, it's more complex than that, as you might expect from the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film retraces the life's journey of Suzette to her various teaching posts in rural French villages, the transitions consisting of shots of speeding model railroad trains to suggest the passing years, from the fifties nearly through the present. Later we learn that's not just a directorial affectation, but that the model railroads were built by Jean-Yves in his lonely childhood. Although the film is indirect in what it communicates, you're left with the feeling that although Gondry respects his aunt, he empathizes more with his cousin, Jean-Yves.

A couple of scenes also refer directly to the magic of film, to which Gondry was introduced by his cousin, who made family films. In one, the crew recreates a makeshift movie theater Suzette had made for her students in the woods back in the early fifties, and shows an old black and white Jean Gabin movie. The most magical scene is one in which schoolchildren are given "green screen" pants or shirts that make parts of their bodies disappear on video while they're playing. It's absolutely enchanting.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The brooding presence of Devil's Lake

Devil's Lake
Formed by the glaciers 15,000 years ago, when they filled in both ends of a great river valley, Devil's Lake has always occupied a unique place in the Baraboo hills, its still waters surrounded by brooding 500-foot quartzite bluffs. The Indians called it Spirit Lake, and that seems a more accurate description than the modern name. It's situated in Wisconsi's busiest State Park, and it tends to get overrun in the midsummer tourist season. But catch it in the off-season, and its brooding presence comes through. It does seem to be presided over by spirits. Black and white seems the best way to capture it photographically on days like this.